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Nicotine-Derived Pesticides Are Killing Canada's Bees

Since the widespread use of nicotine-like pesticides, bee populations have been in decline. The Ontario Beekeepers' Association believes that these pesticides need to be taken off the market to ensure that our food supply isn't affected.
December 11, 2013, 7:01pm

Ontarian bees are under chemical attack. Since the widespread use of neonicotinoids as pesticides on the province’s corn crops began, bee populations have been in decline. Recently our buddy Liam shot and co-directed (alongside Ben Addelman) this video for the Ontario Beekeepers' Association and it blew our minds.

If you haven’t been tuned in as to why we should care that these little honey-making sum’bitches are dying off, we recommend checking out the recent Time magazine feature which describes the frightening effects of the colony collapse disorder affecting honeybees worldwide. The author, Bryan Walsh, points out that if the species ceased to exist, so would 237 out of 453 products available at a given Whole Foods. But even if you don’t enjoy the smug satisfaction of buying overpriced organic kale, there’s a more than likely chance you will still be affected by these little guys’ disappearance. In fact, in one of its reports, the UN stated, “of the 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees.” In short: no bees could potentially mean no food. The causes of the problem are diverse, but in Ontario it appears that the use of neonicotinoids is largely to blame. We spoke to Dennis Edell, member of the board of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association to talk more about bees and pesticides.

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VICE: Hey Mr. Edell, what’s the Ontario Beekeepers' Association’s purpose?
Dennis Edell: We basically look to promote the beekeeping industry as a sustainable one. We look out for beekeepers, both big and small.

What do you mean by big and small?
I personally have ten hives, which qualifies me a hobby beekeeper. When you do this primarily for a living, you typically have over 200 hives and it can reach up to a couple thousand. Most commercial beekeepers in Ontario have between 500 and 1,000 hives. A single hive usually hosts between 40,000 and 60,000 bees during a good summer.

That’s a lot of bees. Can you give us a rundown of the current issue affecting the beekeeping industry in Ontario?
Sure, basically we’re fighting to stop the use of neonicotinoids, a type of pesticides derived from nicotine that are particularly damaging for the bee populations. Ontario and Quebec form the corn belt of Canada and contain approximately four million acres of corn and soybean plantations, all using neonics, which makes it virtually impossible to avoid them. These pesticides, while designed to kill any pest that feeds off the corn and damages the plant, are also incredibly toxic to bees.

How come neonics affect the bees differently than pesticides that were used in the past?
It’s all in the way that they’re applied to the crops. Formerly used pesticides like organophosphates were sprayed onto crops, whereas neonics directly coat the seeds. Because of this, their half-life is longer and they can reach the bees in three different ways. Before even being planted, the seeds rub against each other and release the pesticide dust, which hangs in the air and lands on the wildflowers bees pollinate. Also, they can ingest the neonics through pollinating the corn and soy crops themselves, since the pesticide from the seed stays in the plant as it grows and is present in the pollen as well. Finally, since neonics are water-soluble they stay in the soil and eventually reach the water sources bees use to produce honey.

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And what happens to the bees once they come into contact with the neonicotinoids?
Since the pesticides are designed to kill insects, chances are they’ll ultimately die. We’re seeing it happen in two different ways: either they’re killed almost instantaneously or they die from being weakened by the poison.

Kind of like AIDS?
Yes, or the flu. No one really dies from the flu, but rather from the longer-lasting effects it has on people.

So what does this mean for the beekeeping industry?
Well, since the introduction of the neonics we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the bee population, in both Ontario and Quebec. Also, there has been concern that the problem is spreading to western Canada. In 2012, there was a reported loss of around 6,000 hives out of 80,000 to 100,000 [cultivated in Ontario], which was fairly dramatic. It was brought to the attention of Health Canada, [who] determined the dead bees showed signs of poisoning, so we have cause and effect there. The same thing happened in 2013, and pesticides were found in 80 percent of the dead bees. Winter losses reached twice their average, which is a sign of the slow-killing effects.

Where’s the situation headed?
We believe that we’re seeing a buildup, because of how the situation seems to be spreading to the rest of the country. It’s only a matter of time before it becomes pervasive. Not only is it destroying the beekeeping industry, it’s affecting the entire ecosystem by killing wild bees that pollinate plants to feed all of us.

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Is there any way to stop this?
Essentially we want there to be a moratorium on the use of neonics, like they imposed in Europe. There, they decided to halt their use for two years until they could do extensive research to indentify their effects on the ecosystem. Right now they’re being used on 100 percent of seeds as a precautionary measure, which isn’t good. Also, work that’s been done in Italy showed that not using neonics would only reduce crop yields by 3 to 5 percent, but then again it depends on the crop themselves. What we want to show the government is that this 3 to 5 percent loss shouldn’t be avoided at the cost of 100 percent of the bees.

Are you facing a lot of resistance on that front?
Of course, the multinational companies that have control over the entire pesticide market are lobbying against the moratorium movement. We want to provide public support to the government so they have the power to ban.

Some argue that there is "no difference in colony health between hives exposed to neonics and those that weren’t, in real life condition.What’s your response?
Actually, Health Canada’s Management Regulatory Agency published a report that blows all of that out of the water. They’ve confirmed the bee kills across Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba were directly related to the application of pesticides. The European Food Safety Authority also referred to a variety of reports showing the same thing to make their decision.

And what can we do to help?
Keep spreading awareness of the situation! There’s a lot of resources, information and petitions on our website ontariobee.com. This really is an issue that concerns all of us and we don’t want to end up pollinating with Q-tips now, do we?

No, no we certainly don’t.

@martcte